It was nothing more than a worn-out flower.
It was lying on the ground, Jessie Ponce de Leon remembers. Easy to pass up. But her son, Albert Rosales, then about 5 years old, bent down and grabbed it. He asked his mother if she would store it in her purse. She wondered why but stashed the flower away.
When they got home, Rosales took the flower and began drawing it.
“I saw him do it, and I was still like, ‘How did he do that?’ ” Ponce de Leon says. “I’m watching him; I’m seeing it come alive.”
“He’s been such a natural,” she says.
Eighteen years later, and 23-year-old Albert Rosales is standing inside his southeast Albuquerque home holding a can of black spray paint. In front of him, a white T-shirt stretches over a wooden board.
Rosales weaves the can of paint over a train-shaped stencil taped onto the shirt, dusting it just right to leave a bare streak down the train’s middle, which he will fill in with silver highlights.
Were the image depicted on an alley wall or the side of a locomotive, some might call it graffiti. But Rosales – whose work will be part of a one-day group show in July at the Harwood Art Center – would call it art.
The first time he saw graffiti, he was riding on a school bus that picked him up in his South Valley neighborhood. On its way to school, it passed through the Barelas and Atrisco neighborhoods. It was like going to an art gallery for Rosales. He remembers reading giant, writhing words – painted more than written – across some of the neighborhoods’ walls.
“Old English letters, filled in black, beautiful,” he says. “When I saw that, I didn’t see it as gang related. I saw it as culturally related.”
Since then, Rosales has used the tools, techniques and iconography of graffiti – the underground street art that turns city walls and signs into a canvas – to inspire his own mixed-media work of funky lettering, vibrant colors and political messages.
“To me, graffiti is . . . about being happy and not happy, being a human being and being a human doing,” Rosales says between sprays on the T-shirts, which he plans to sell at an art and fashion show. “A lot of people are just being here.”
And “do” Rosales does: At his feet are rows of spray paint cans flecked with droplets of escaping color. A painting he did of a comic book character hangs on the narrow room’s wall. Tiny pieces of wood, with figures burned into them, are scattered on a work table. And in front of him, just to the left of the T-shirt board, is his bid for greatness – a combination of acrylic paint, spray paint and wood-burning, a process by which lines and shading are burned into a piece of wood with a soldering gun.
It’s a striking piece dominated by a parrot burned into the middle of the thick, wooden slab. A heavy turquoise line – much like the line graffiti artists paint around their letters – traces the bird, and a hand, pinched as if holding a pen, reaches it out from its body. One of its wood-burned wings blends into bright strokes of sky blue paint.
“I don’t want to just be a good artist; I want to be a great artist, and I want to do something no one else is doing,” he says. “No one else does that.”
Rosales says he uses animals, because they have an irresistible appeal, a harmless beauty that seduces the observer’s eye. He made a portrait of a tiger for his mother that sits in the window of her bedroom, right above a stuffed white tiger doll. She said she loves the image, but one of her favorite pieces from her son was a painting of elephants disguised as clouds.
“You can see one facing that way, but the other you’ll just maybe see the tail end of it or the nose,” she says. “It’s just really cool.”
Rosales’ mother has talents of her own. She gives her son the occasional collage and helps him with his art by collecting wooden and paper frames. Rosales takes a few from a stack of them sitting on the floor of her apartment, a dwelling that is part of a public program designed to help people transition from living on the streets to living in a house.
Ponce de Leon has lived in the apartment for a little more than a year. Prior to that, she lived on the streets. It wasn’t her first encounter with homelessness. When Rosales was about 10, there was a period of three to six months that the family – Ponce de Leon, Rosales and his two sisters – made do with free shelters and a car, Ponce de Leon says.
Rosales remembers those days without remorse.
“We grew up homeless off and on, but it wasn’t disgusting homeless like how everyone else depicts it,” he says. “We’d just drive around in a car and go to a park and eat and act like it was a picnic. We didn’t realize we were homeless. We just thought we were having an adventure.”
It was a purer world free of material strife, Rosales says.
“That’s when I got exposed to more of an underground world I was happy with,” he says. “There’s no greed. You don’t lust for what everyone else has. You don’t envy what everyone else has. There’s no material objects to fight over, so you don’t fight. Whatever comes into play, you share.
“It seemed more peaceful than having a home,” he says. “As soon as we had a house, we’re fighting over the . . . TV and the Nintendo.”
It was a period of his life that taught him values he admired in graffiti art, he says. Graffiti is free – the only cost he sees to work on public property is the cost of cleaning it up, he says. Anyone who wants to view it can do so without paying, making it an art form accessible to everyone, regardless of their social class, he says.
He admits some graffiti lacks the skill and care that would make people less inclined to consider it a form of vandalism.
“Some of these kids aren’t artistic and don’t even care what they do,” he says. “That’s part of it. How could you have good art without bad art?”
But he’s trying to change all that. He encourages other graffiti artists he retains connections with to think deeply about their work, to make it so beautiful that no one could properly call it vandalism. He also encourages them to take the skills they learn on the streets and use them to do legal, paying work. He has been doing that for nearly five years, and he tries to organize projects for himself and other artists.
One such project is a mural covering an outer wall of Hubb City Outlet, a car-detailing shop and clothing store on Albuquerque’s northeast side.
Rosales and two other artists spray-painted two glittering cars in the forefront of a dark city scene. The business’ name – in bulbous, 3-D symmetrical letters – towers over the cars like skyscrapers floating in the sky.
“Since he did that mural, it increased my business,” says Donnell Wade, owner of the store. “Some people ask for his number to have him do some work for them.”
Rosales and his team painted the mural twice; the first version, done in 2003, flaked away because of the wall’s condition. Wade said the second version, completed in 2004, showed more refined details and was better than the first. He’s considering asking Rosales to work on another wall in the future.
“It’s a different form of art,” he says. “It’s more from his heart.”
Rosales also landed a freelance job with Waste Management of New Mexico to put his artwork on trash containers.
“We think it adds a little beautification to the community for something that is usually considered ugly,” says Marlene Feuer, government and public affairs manager with Waste Management. “The artwork is absolutely beautiful.”
Rick Padilla, a driver with Waste Management and longtime friend of Rosales, says he got the idea of Rosales decorating the containers about five years ago, when graffiti showed up on the containers again and again.
“I knew graffiti writers respect someone else’s work,” Padilla says. “They don’t want to ruin the pretty picture by just throwing up a name, unless the guy’s a real jerk.”
Rosales painted one container as a test five years ago, and it has remained graffiti-free since, Padilla says.
He says Rosales “has a lot of potential. I think if he manages and organizes his priorities right, he can go very far with his art.”
And as Rosales moves forward, he’s bringing others along with him.
Artist Luke Aiello, 19, met Rosales five years ago at a hip-hop show.
At the time, Rosales made a quick sketch of an Asian character in Aiello’s drawing diary.
“I was real inspired just by the work he did in my book,” Aiello says.
He says many graffiti artists are interested in Rosales’ work for its intensity and depth. Aiello’s political awareness has increased, he says, because of Rosales’ broaching of controversial topics, such as negative stereotypes of Hispanics.
“I always listen to him,” he says. “He keeps us going, keeps us on our stuff, keeps us aware.
“He’s kind of like the elder.”
Piece: Short for masterpiece, a graffiti artist’s best work.
Throw-up: Quickly written gestural letters, usually in two colors.
Shell: The thick outline around letters.
Toy: A beginning graffiti artist.
King: A highly experienced graffiti artist.
What: Traditional and graffiti-inspired artwork, including that of Albert Rosales, and break dancing.
When: One-day show begins at 1 p.m. July 10, until done.
Where: Harwood Art Center, 1114 Seventh St. N.W.